1950s Yo-Yo Champ Answers 2014 Yo-Yo Champ’s S–t Talking

Why aren't OG yo-yo players getting props from the YouTube generation?

When ESPN asked LeBron James about Michael Jordan last year, Cleveland’s returning king expressed his desire to “show respect and pay homage to the greatest.” Not every athlete feels the same way about the old guard.

A couple days ago, we brought you the first post-victory interview with Gentry Stein, the 18-year-old newly crowned victor of the World Yo-Yo Contest in Prague, whose winning routine is now approaching a million online views. No doubt the guy is super talented and deserves the title, but we were kinda surprised that he dissed yo-yo’s vets:

“I ran into this dude and his wife, talking about being yo-yo champions in the ’70s with rock the baby. That’s cool they have that story, and so many people have that same story: ‘I was a yo-yo champion in the ’60s, and I did walk the dog,’ but that’s what’s killing the image.

“What I’m thinking now is, if we can continue to push this video when it’s going viral — and to get as many people as possible to see what it’s becoming — we can talk about that instead of how their grandpa was good at something.”

We called up 78-year-old Bob Rule, a.k.a. “Mr. Yo-Yo,” a former champion who appeared on national TV and performed all over the country back in the 1950s and ’60s. (Many of his vintage yo-yos are housed at the Smithsonian Institution.) Rule’s a kindly grandpa, so declined to return Gentry’s fire — aside from calling him “completely wrong” — but schooled us on the sport’s golden age and why it’s taking off again.

MTV News: What do you think of the players dominating yo-yo today?
Bob Rule: The change is incredible — there’s just absolutely no comparison in the two generations. The things they’re doing, we considered impossible.

MTV: Is that because of the change in yo-yo technology?
Rule: Oh absolutely, it’s the yo-yo itself. Supposedly the world record for the spinner when I was growing up was 58 seconds — the most I could ever get was 16 or 18 seconds — and today [people can do] 20 minutes. … If [my generation had the technology], we could have done it. The dexterity was there, but we didn’t have the equipment.

Mr yoyo 1

MTV: The new tech must be impressive — YoYoFactory’s costs almost $50.
Rule: Oh, that’s a cheap one! Golly, I saw one on ABC News that had 27 parts in it and was $150. I’ve seen them for $300. The yo-yo I played with was two parts and 50 cents.

It’s all the technology in the yo-yo. Well, that’s not fair to the players, because it’s a tremendous amount of dedication to get that good; I don’t even understand what they’re doing. YouTube is just filled up with players — there’s a five-year-old they call “Yo-Yo Baby” and he’s just incredible. Where does a five-year-old get the dedication to practice hour after hour?

YouTube has just done tremendous things to help the kids learn how to play — it’s amazing when I see a youngster doing a trick and I ask, “Where did you learn that?” And he’ll say, “I learned it on YouTube.”

MTV: How old were you when you got your start?
Rule: I started as a kid on a street corner back in 1948…I was either 11 or 12. I went to summer camp, and I was going to the doctor to get shots for poison ivy, and where I changed buses there was a yo-yo contest on the corner by the crusty shop. I could not put it down — I was just obsessed with it.

MTV: When did you start winning championships?
Rule: Probably a year later in ’49. I have a picture of a real nice trophy I won in ’50, which was a big deal at the time. Everybody gets a trophy now — every player on the ball team gets a trophy if you’re first or last — but that defeats the purpose of them. My teacher would set up contests all the way up 7 Mile Road in Detroit. I’d start way on the extreme east side…and get home at night.

MTV: Was that a cool thing at the time?
Rule: No, no. Within our group it was a popular thing. The other kids at school would look at you funny and say, “Yo-yos, that’s nothing.”

MTV: So it didn’t make the girls go crazy when you were a teenager?
Rule: No, nuh-uh, there was no attraction there. All the jocks got the girls.

MTV: What would you say to get young people playing with yo-yos instead of, like, skateboarding?
Rule: Well, it’s safer, even though sometimes [yo-yos] can be vicious when they come back and hit you. I would never knock any sports, if that’s what they want to do. Video games…well, they require some kind of dexterity. But yo-yo is very relaxing, also frustrating at the same time.

MTV: Do you still play?
Rule: I still play, I have [yo-yos] all over the house, but when you get around kids as good as the one in the video, you keep your hands in your pockets. … I hurt my left wrist about eight months ago, I’m reduced to a one-handed player.

MTV: Do any of the younger players ever recognize you?
Rule: Yes, it’s very rewarding the way the younger people come up and [say], “I heard your name.” I get probably two or three or four letters a month off the website, “My uncle [or] my dad used to be a champion.”

MTV: But that’s exactly what Gentry thinks is “killing” yo-yo’s image.
Rule: I think he’s completely wrong there; he shouldn’t feel bad about that. I don’t expect any respect from him — he doesn’t owe me anything — but I would be surprised by a remark like that. I think [the younger players] are fantastic, there’s no jealousy on my part at all.

Writer/Editor at MTV News. Author of "The Heming Way" and "'90s Island."
@martybeckerman